The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Book Review - Ethiopia’s Hidden Treasures
Reviewer - Robert Farwell
This is a most valuable book, a record of the decoration of eighteen of Ethiopia’s churches, some much visited, others not, but all of the greatest interest. There are general chapters on the country, on the architecture of its churches, on its Christianity and saints, and on the Jesuit interlude, but the bulk of the book is on the mural paintings of the selected churches, with extensive illustration and plans wall by wall. The scenes are explained in detail, and many of the stories behind them given. The churches are largely from the Geralta and Tsaeda Amba areas of Tigray, rock-hewn, but three from the Lalibela area are also covered, including the spectacular timber-built cave church of Yemrehane Krestos, together with three conventionally built examples from the Gondar area. These are the well-known ‘nave’ church of Debre Berhan Selassie in Gondar itself, and two round churches with central maqdas - Debre Sina Maryam at Gorgora and Narga Selassie on Dek Island. Instructions on finding all the churches are included.
As guides to Ethiopia's churches there have hitherto been Otto Jaeger’s little book Antiquities of North Ethiopia (Stuttgart and London 1965); Georg Gerster’s superb but scarce Churches in Rock (London 1970); Ewald Hein and Brigitte Kleidt’s excellent but short Ethiopia - Christian Africa, Art, Churches and Culture (Ratingen 1999); Mario di Salvo’s comprehensive work on Narga Selassie, Churches of Ethiopia - the Monastery Church of Narga Selassie; and Claude Lepage and Jacques Mercier’s Art ethiopien, les Eglises historiques du Tigray (Paris 2005, bilingual). Mrs. Friedlander’s book takes its place with all these.
The book, it is particularly good to see, recognises the value and interest of schemes from the late 17th century through to the 19th century, as well as the fascinating but often fragmentary earlier ones, covering the three mentioned churches from the Gondar area, together with Maryam Papaseti and Abreha & Atsbeha from Tigray. Perhaps Mrs. Friedlander will be encouraged by success to give us a further volume on other, sadly underpublished schemes such as those at Debre Markos, Bichena Giorgis, Debre Worq and Mertule Maryam in Gojjam; Ura Kidane Mehret, Azwa Maryam and Betre Maryam on Lake Tana; the old Church of St. Mary Zion and the Arbate Ensesa church and baptistry in Axum; the churches of Adwa and the Abba Garima monastery near the town; and Chelikot Selassie near Mekele. I know she has slides of some of them at least! They all have detailed narrative schemes drawing on the Old and New Testaments and on Ethiopian traditions.
The superb photographs taken by Bob Friedlander and the plans of the decoration that he has drawn make this a book to add greatly to the interest of any trip to see the churches. No one wanting to know what they are looking at, even on a general tour, should be without it.
The book is available from Shama Books in Ethiopia and profit is going to an eye clinic run by sisters at Mekele. Alternatively enquiries may be sent directly to Mrs. Friedlander.
Contact details are:
71 Tor Bryan
Essex CM4 9HN
Ethiopia's Hidden Treasures by María-José Friedlander, published by Shama Books, Addis Ababa, 2007.